Hurricane Laura reduced some coastal Louisiana homes to concrete slabs, nearly consumed entire towns

CREOLE, La. —From the outside, Mike Trahan's home looked like maybe it had survived Hurricane Laura's powerful winds and massive storm surge. But Trahan was not rushing to look inside.

a cow is standing in front of a building: A dog walks past a home that was destroyed after Hurricane Laura made landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron Parish, La. © Callaghan O'Hare/For The Washington Post A dog walks past a home that was destroyed after Hurricane Laura made landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border in Cameron Parish, La.

He went straight to the roof to fix the damage he had seen via a camera he had mounted in front of his home, which is elevated as a bulwark against the inevitable elements that repeatedly attack this lowland area of coastal Cameron Parish. He and his stepson tacked down tarps. He put away his ladder. He reluctantly went for his keys.

In the living room, Trahan’s couches were covered in pink ceiling insulation. Drips were echoing. The air was hot and musty. In the bedroom, half of Trahan’s bed was soaked, and a strip of white ceiling hung nearly to the floor.

Trahan, 65, seemed immediately to look for the bright side of all this.

“I needed a new sofa anyways,” he said. “And, well, my clock’s still ticking.”

Trahan didn’t bother to look at the rest of the house, instead stopping to admire the working grandfather clock: “I might as well wind it.”

In the front yard, a giant oak tree was cracked in half, and dead frogs and snakes, stiffened by the onslaught of salt water from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, littered the grass. The street alongside his home was a shallow stream, and his barn was splintered beyond recognition.

Trahan built this home after Hurricane Rita destroyed his previous one here in 2005. He’s planning to rebuild again.

“Maybe the third time’s a charm,” he said.

While Hurricane Laura largely missed major cities and left the Texas coastline almost completely unscathed, the low-lying wetlands in far southwestern Louisiana took a significant hit, with crushing storm surge and whipping winds dramatically altering the area and destroying numerous homes and properties. In and around Cameron, La., where Laura’s eyewall struck first before rampaging north, rescuers and homeowners were getting their first looks at the damage late Friday and early Saturday.

Laura’s flooding rendered Trahan’s home accessible only by water. Trahan opted to pay $1,200 for an airboat ride just to see what had happened. Out on the Intracoastal Canal — the waterway serving as an access point to the damaged southern portions of the parish — stark scenes made Laura’s devastation clear.

A luxury speed boat, still strung with the rope that once connected it to a dock, now sat half-sunken in the water. Coyote puppies paced back-and-forth, marooned on a strip of land that had recently become an island, as an alligator slowly prowled the edges. Few boats traversed the water; helicopters whirred overhead. The tops of cars poked out of inundated streets.

Jason Theriot, 25, boated to his home in Creole on Thursday night, shortly after the storm had passed.

“My house is gone,” he said. Of the 400 or so homes in his town, Theriot estimated he saw just about a dozen that had survived the storm without serious damage.

While many residents in Lake Charles, to the north, spent the day sorting through rubble to find salvageable possessions, Theriot said he didn’t have that option.

“There’s nothing there,” he said. “It’s a cement slab.”

Residents said that even with the vast loss of property here, things could have been far worse. It appears most people heeded warnings to get out of Laura’s way. Cameron Parish officials had reported no fatalities as of late Friday, though there were still people known to have stayed behind who were not yet accounted for. Louisiana officials have reported at least 1o dead statewide, most from fallen trees north of here or from carbon monoxide poisoning relating to the use of generators, including a family of five in Lake Charles. Another four have been reported killed in Texas.

On Saturday, residents said they expected power to be out for as long as two weeks, a daunting prospect in the hot Louisiana summer, and authorities warned people in a text alert that generators can be both “a vital resource during recovery,” but, “if misused, they can be deadly.”

In Carlyss, La., Meme Espinosa, 62, relied on her generator to help out neighbors as they came to assess the damage to their homes. Espinosa and her husband, Romeo, were among the few people in the neighborhood whose homes made it through the storm unscathed.

“Everybody over there lost everything,” she said, pointing to the destroyed homes lining the Chopique Bayou. One blue house, just a few doors away, was blown entirely off its foundation. It now sat partially submerged in the bayou’s still waters.

Espinosa planned to use her good luck — and her generator — to make life a bit more normal for those who are suffering without power. She plugged in her crockpot and stewed some barbecue chicken, hoping to hand it out to people passing by.

“Having a generator is nice. I can cook some meals, give people a little hot food,” Espinosa said. “We do live in Louisiana. We don’t eat out of cans.”

Laura’s predicted storm surges proved less devastating than expected, and generally struck in less-populated areas. Because the storm hit just east of Port Arthur, Tex., and the waterway that runs up to Lake Charles, the storm surge did not cause the severe urban flooding it could have.

And in this quiet community, where hunting and fishing are popular pastimes, residents have long known that hurricanes are not to be played with.

“Nobody stayed,” Theriot said of his town.

Kirk Quinn, an elected police juror for Cameron Parish, said some 200 residents parishwide opted not to evacuate, with the rest fleeing to higher ground in advance of the storm.

For many residents, one consideration in determining whether to evacuate is the difficulty of getting back in. Reentering the area proved nearly impossible for many as of Friday night.

Highway 27, the rural road into southern Cameron Parish, was a miles-long obstacle course, with downed power lines blocking the roadway before floodwater abruptly halted traffic. Friday’s additional rains added sticky mud to that equation. Cellphone service remained out, and sheriff’s officers implemented an 8 p.m. curfew.

Quinn said residents were told it could be as long as four weeks for power to be restored.

“The water is still rising right now,” Quinn said, an effect caused by water flowing back to the Gulf. It should start receding over the weekend.

At a boat launch in Sweet Lake, La., water lilies pushed ashore by the storm blocked access to the Intracoastal Canal. Many residents looking to inspect their damaged homes turned around upon realizing that even boat travel would be untenable.

Quinn worries that many residents will not like what they find when they finally make it home.

“This storm was twice as bad as Rita,” he said. “Some of the houses here made it through Rita and Ike, but most of the houses didn’t make it through this time.”

“The trailer houses were wiped out,” he added. “My neighbor in front had a trailer house, and it’s wrapped up in a pecan tree now.”

To some degree, this kind of loss has become a part of coastal living in southern Louisiana.

Theriot, whose Creole home was decimated this week, said he also lost his childhood home to Hurricane Rita.

Quinn said the impact of hurricanes seems to have worsened during his lifetime.

“Today, the storms are so much more intense. We had a buffer zone, with all the residents, before Rita,” he said. “But now, those houses are gone.”

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